The Idaho football team is on its way to making history.
With the Vandals boasting its best record since 2009 and an expected bowl game berth, it seems Idaho has all but finished a successful season.
But one obstacle stands in the team’s way — Sun Belt opponent Georgia State.
While Idaho (7-4, 5-2) already clinched a winning season, the Idaho seniors are not quite finished with 2016.
Idaho head coach Paul Petrino said it was important for the seniors to get one last win.
“I’m appreciative that we’ve been through it together,” Petrino said. “We’ve been through the tough times together. We’ve all kept fighting. When you do things like that with people, it builds a special bond that really will never be broken.”
There are 20 players who will play their last game Saturday.
“I think I’m going to try and get all of my emotion out Friday night,” Petrino said. “I am half-Irish and half-Italian, so sometimes emotions are hard for me.”
Petrino said a win on Senior Day would be nice but Georgia State (3-8, 2-5) is not an easy opponent.
Despite their record, the Panthers have a knack for staying in games.
“They scare you,” Petrino said. “You would think they were 8-3 when you just watch them.”
A strong passing game has helped Georgia State stay competitive through the season. Quarterback Conner Manning threw for 318 yards and two touchdowns during the Panthers’ victory against rival Georgia Southern Nov. 19. His 21-of-39 completions to four different receivers helped elevate the Panthers past the Eagles 30-24.
Petrino said work from junior quarterback Matt Linehan will be necessary to win.
Linehan passed for 231 yards and two touchdowns in Idaho’s win over South Alabama Nov. 26, but had trouble controlling the football with three interceptions.
Despite the turnovers, Linehan passed to seven different players. Senior tight ends Trent Cowan and Deon Watson combined for five catches and 57 yards.
The game-leader in catches, senior receiver Callen Hightower, caught five balls for 111 yards and a touchdown.
With so much experience in one position, Idaho’s air attack will play a large part in the game. Georgia State’s pass defense will look to minimalize the impact of receivers, after allowing 122 yards through the air against Georgia Southern.
Sophomore running back Isaiah Saunders rushed for a career high 143 yards in Idaho’s game against South Alabama.
“Isaiah is just a little picture of what our team is,” Petrino said. “He’s got great vision, he’s physical, he breaks tackles, and he catches the ball out of the backfield too.”
Georgia State allowed 241 yards of rushing against the Eagles, while running for 71.
Petrino will look to Saunders to carry the load against the Panthers and rely on his young running back to pick up valuable yardage when the passing game stalls.
Georgia State’s interim head coach Tim Lappano is a 1983 Idaho graduate. The Spokane native played football for Vandals from 1975-79. Petrino and Lappano have never met.
Idaho takes on Georgia State 2 p.m. Saturday in the Kibbie Dome.
Brandon Hill can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @brandonmtnhill